Pastors say faith journey traveled by asking
Community Bible Church surveyed Baton Rouge residents about what questions they had for God, anticipating a wide variety of interesting queries.
What the congregation got, the Rev. Steve Foster said, was a startling snapshot of how people are actually feeling about eternal matters.
“A lot of us have heartache and loss,” Foster said after compiling the results of 1,735 survey responses with suffering the most common question topic, coming up in 20 percent of the responses.
“Some were very poignant personal questions that just make your heart break,” Foster said. “Why did my child die swimming? Why did my brother commit suicide?
“Suffering never leaves someone neutral — it either drives them away from God or drives them to God.”
Foster and other Baton Rouge pastors see taking questions to God not as eroding faith, but rather as a way to explore and build one’s faith.
The Community Bible Church survey wasn’t a scientific study, but rather a sampling of opinions from a diverse mix of church members’ acquaintances and people encountered shopping or at LSU.
The congregation began by passing out a simple, open-ended form to friends and co-workers and got 735 responses, but because some of those surveyed had difficulty coming up with responses, Foster changed the questionnaire from a simple blank space asking, “If you could ask God any question, what would it be?” to a list of suggested questions and a blank space at the bottom for an “other” write-in question.
“Why did you make mosquitoes?” was added to the list for some levity, but ended up as the 11th most popular question.
Humor aside, the mosquitoes question actually raises a serious issue, Foster said, because, “God designed creation which was very good and it then it drastically changed when man fell and that obviously impacted our human anatomy, pain in childbirth, the plant world, thorns and thistles, and changed how animals — including mosquitoes — relate to each other.”
Church members took the revised form and spent two days surveying outside of a grocery store a few blocks down Jefferson Highway from the church. They gave away gift certificates to anyone completing a survey and got about 500 responses.
After that, the congregation decided to go to LSU and survey students hanging out in the Student Union. “I would say 95 percent (of the students) we approached were willing to do it,” Foster said.
Foster compiled the results into a list of the most asked to least asked questions and offered a sermon series on the top 10 questions.
About half of the questions began with “why,” Foster said. “That tells me we long for meaning — we know there has to be a reason behind the universe.”
To begin the series, Foster preached an overview of 86 direct questions to God just in the book of Psalms, then he discussed other questions asked by Gideon, Jeremiah, Job, and even Jesus who on the cross cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Why ask God why?
Nevertheless, the church encountered several people who said it wasn’t right to question God, especially one man in particular, “who was visibly upset,” Foster said. “He said we don’t ask God questions; we just do what he tells us to do.”
But Foster said he believes God invites questions and provides the answers in Scripture, a belief that the Rev. Brady Whitton, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, discussed earlier this year in a “Got Questions?” sermon series.
Whitton came to Baton Rouge in June from First United Methodist Church of Amite, and used the series as a way to introduce himself to his new congregation. Whitton said he received several hundred questions, including many from folks who don’t attend the church but who watch the television broadcast.
He welcomes questions, he said, because for most of his life he was so full of questions, “I couldn’t sit still.”
He grew up in the church, but left the faith as a teenager and ended up in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery after college where he returned to biblical faith.
“My questions were the fuel for my faith,” Whitton said. “They kept me engaged, they kept me reading the Bible. That’s why I was a philosophy and religion major, that’s why I moved into a Buddhist monastery, that’s why I went to seminary, because these questions were driving me. I can sit still now.”
“For a lot of people, the permission to question is the beginning,” Whitton said. “A lot of us grow up in the church thinking that we are supposed to pretend to believe things — where we are supposed to pretend to feel certain ways.
“Jesus doesn’t want us to pretend to love each other: He wants us to actually love each other,” Whitton said. “He doesn’t want us to pretend to believe in God: He wants us to actually believe in God.”
“The only way to come to belief is to be really honest about the questions we have,” Whitton said. “If this is Truth — with a capital T — it should withstand our questions.”
The first week was “Why ask why,” then he preached for two weeks on the afterlife, Whitton said. “I have realized how important those questions are to a lot of people who have lost loved ones, or who are facing their own death.”
He preached a week on “Is there a God?”, then “How we read scriptures”, followed by “Why Jesus had to die on the cross,” and finished with two weeks discussing suffering, also the most asked question.
Beyond why — relationship
One of the questions Whitton said he received was, “Why did my child die?”
“There may be an answer to that question, but that answer will not solve the problem of the pain,“ he said. “Sometimes the answers are overrated.
“What we need is a relationship with God,” Whitton said. “Sometimes what we need is trust. Sometimes what we need is surrender.”
Whitton cites the example of Job who wrestles with the questions of suffering but, “the turning point is when God appears — there is a theophany — when God becomes real to Job, that’s when his questions become less important.”
Not why, what — who, how
Bishop Raymond W. Johnson, founder and pastor of the 7,000-member Living Faith Christian Center on Winbourne Avenue, said it is OK to ask God questions, but some things, especially in history, just can’t be adequately explained.
“Ask any black person and they would say, I can’t believe God let slavery happen,” Johnson said, “but (God) let slavery happen for the Jews for 400 years or the Holocaust where 6 million people were destroyed.
“Sometimes man is really evil and God gets the knock for it,” Johnson said. “There are places where people are starving and the leaders are rich — it’s not that the country is poor the people are poor.”
Johnson agrees with the other pastors that sometimes good things can happen to bad people and bad things can happen to good people.
“I’ve never believed God is at the root of something bad for anybody whether they be good or evil,” Johnson said.
“There are many bad people who live a relatively good life.
“The first thing that I teach is that God is sovereign, but people have their own free moral will,” Johnson said.
“In other words, yes, God created everything, but he doesn’t micromanage human society. We have a choice to get up and go to work and make good out of our lives.”
Johnson said sometimes the questions should not be “why” but “how.”
“How can I be more effective?” Johnson asked. “How can I be more productive?”
“We can’t stop the storms from coming, but what do I do when the storm does come with my compassion, my consideration for my fellow brother?
“Some people just sit back and criticize while others roll up their sleeves and do something which makes life better,” ” Johnson said. “So it’s not God — it’s us.
“We say we believe in God, so we can say, ‘God help me to be a better person to affect my neighbors and my friends.’”
Vu: God is the answer
The Very Rev. Than N. Vu, vicar general and moderator of Curia for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said the examples of Job, Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, David and other biblical figures demonstrate the value of taking questions to God.
“One wouldn’t even question God unless one has some sort of relationship with God,” Vu explained in an email.
“I’d be more concerned if a person doesn’t even turn to God at all.
“When a person comes to me for counseling regarding a tragic situation, I encourage that person to bring it before God in whatever form the person is comfortable with: turning to God for comfort and consolation; coming to God with anger, sadness, resentment, frustration, etc.,” Vu wrote. “As long as a person turns to God, there’s always the opportunity for God to heal, like Jacob who wrestled with God and was finally healed by God.”
Vu encourages people to read the story of Job and identify with him and also read the Psalms, especially the “lamentation” psalms, he said.
“I also encourage the person not to waste time trying to figure out the answer to the question ‘Why?’, since we’ll never know the answer to that on this side of heaven.”